Sometimes solutions present themselves for problems we aren't even aware of. In the words of Steve Jobs, "A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them." Jobs excelled at inventing and reinventing products that consume energy. Great stuff, but what the world really needs is someone equally as brilliant at inventing and reinventing products ordinary people can use to generate their own energy. As a model for reinventing home heating, I nominate the wood stove.
This 1978 Vermont Castings "Vigilant"--a good name for a wood stove--came with our house. Our first impression was that it seemed to be standing in the way of a nice fireplace. But we gave it a try, and over time, as we've learned how to use it, the wood stove's abundant, radiant warmth has proven in many ways superior to the comparatively sophisticated furnace in the basement.
How have we come to love this woodstove? Let me count the ways.
- It heats the whole house. Somehow the heat generated in the living room goes through doorways, turns the corner into the kitchen, and heads up the stairway to the bedrooms.
- It creates a gradient of heat, allowing everyone to find their own comfort zone. No more tyranny of the thermostat dictating a uniform temperature that all must live with.
- It burns locally grown energy, with a carbon footprint that is actually negative. Not only does it reduce the need for fracked natural gas, but the wood it burns (arborists taking down trees in the neighborhood are often glad to give us the wood) would otherwise have been hauled to the composting center for grinding up by fossil fuel-burning machines. Wood, whether it's burned or allowed to decompose, is simply releasing back into the air the same carbon it absorbed over the previous decades of growth. Thus, no net increase in atmospheric carbon.
- With no moving parts to wear out, this wood stove needs no servicing beyond annual cleaning of the chimney.
- Unlike the furnace in the basement, a wood stove can dry wet mittens, cook soup, and fry eggs. Again, the gradient of heat comes in handy. Its varied surfaces can bring water to a boil or gently warm a cup of coffee.
- A wood stove is "unplugged", oblivious to power outages, ready to warm a house and cook food through any power outage. It empowers us to glean our own energy from the local landscape rather than remain totally dependent on the grid.
Beyond these practical aspects, a wood stove is elegant in its simplicity. It does for heat what a candle does for light, creating a focal point that draws you in. Normal lighting and heating in a house tend to be dispersed. A wood stove can even be said to have charisma, drawing us with its almost human qualities of great warmth and generosity. Its radiant heat warms body and heart in ways the tepid air emanating from the central heating's floor vents cannot.
We got lots of tips on how to make it burn as cleanly as possible. A wood stove burns much cleaner and hotter than a fireplace, and radiates much more of that heat into the room. Newer stoves have secondary and tertiary burn chambers to maximize combustion of gases that would otherwise go up the chimney as pollution. My friend in air quality at the EPA tells me that a good sign is if no smoke is visible coming out of the chimney. Even with our older stove, we're able to achieve that with dry, well-cured wood and a good air supply.
The front door in this photo is open to show how hot the mass of coals is inside, but efficient burning requires the doors remain closed so that a more focused air supply can be delivered through an adjustable air vent in the back of the stove.
Our chimney sweep told us to load wood in through the top, which was counterintuitive. The powerful draft of the flu draws the flames back towards the chimney, making it safe to open this metal lid. Previous owners of the house installed a liner in the chimney, for easier cleaning and greater safety.
A wood stove teams up well with the other local energy available--sunlight coming in through the windows in winter.
I sing the wood stove's praises, but am also cognizant that it is not a solution that can be widely applied in a town setting.
Why, one could ask, with the countless ways progress has given us to consume energy, has no one developed a way to capture the sunlight hitting a house and channel it into some radiant object in the living room we could all gather round? I'm imagining some attractive variant of the solar water heater.
In the meantime, this elegant, radiant, charismatic creation from another century offers a template for reinventing the future.